Interlude: Mysterious Barricades

Another way to have approached this blog would have been by works, rather than by composers. Had I done so, Francois Couperin’s Les Barricades Mysterieuses would have featured prominently. This two-page composition, not even three minutes in duration, was a sonic boom that has reverberated throughout the centuries since its was composed in 1717. It is, in essence, a distillation of what this blog is all about–the Conversation between composers that links us, at least artistically, across the vastness of time.

Much ink has been spilled trying to unravel the meaning of Couperin’s title. I could care less. Whether a wry comment on harmonics or something decidedly more salacious, it is the music itself that we are here for. Technically speaking, the work is composed in style brise, which was common enough in the Baroque Period and which features irregular arpeggiation, that is where one note is held and left unresolved until a new harmony is started in the bass line. This technique creates thick textures in the music and the coloration emblematic of the Baroque Period. Alternatively described as “shimmering” or as a “kaleidoscope of sound,” Couperin’s magical composition continues to weave its spell well into the 21st century.

Let’s begin our journey with how the work was originally intended to be performed, on harpsichord:

Francois Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre sixieme: No. 5, Les Barricades Mysterieuses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOX3WtkrbpY&t=704s (begins at 11:44, accessible via the links in the description)

The immediacy of this work, in no small part aided by the playing of the remarkable Blandine Verlet, seems to anticipate Chopin, if not Ravel and Debussy. The contemporary composer Thomas Ades opined that this brief work was a better lesson in composition than he had received from any of his teachers on how to produce melody from harmony. To explain, Ades transcribed the work for double bass, bass clarinet, clarinet, viola and cello. Is that a hint of Joplin I hear?

Francois Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre sixieme: No. 5, Les Barricades Mysterieuses (arr. Thomas Ades): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNWz7Uq5WIE

Couperin builds his harmony from multiple voices, which gives the work greater depth of texture. In Ades’ transcription, we can clearly hear how one note of a chord is sustained and resolves into the succeeding harmony following the bass line. While so-called “supension” generally resolves down, Couperin also presents dissonances that resolve up. Not knowing which way the music will move leads, perhaps, to the mystery alluded to in the title. The layering of voices to create a contrapuntal harmony becomes apparent when the work is performed on a modern piano.

Francois Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre sixieme: No. 5, Les Barricades Mysterieuses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmERxLY9lls

At once sounding old and yet fresh as something composed yesterday, it is no surprise that Les Barricades Mysterieuses has been featured in many films, including, memorably, Terrence Malik’s The Tree of Life (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iP4-d2tpDkA).

Les Barricades Mysterieuses has inspired dozens of compositions by direct attribution and many more indirectly–at least 10 works by direct attribution since 2000 alone, across multiple genres. For example, Andy Summers, best known for his work with The Police, released the album Mysterious Barricades in 1988. And if there was any doubt as to his inspiration, the titular track lays that all to rest:

Andy Summers, Mysterious Barricades: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSm8-cmQtUM

Summers knows a good riff when he hears one. He’s not alone: The band Vampire Weekend borrowed heavily from Couperin for this infectious track, off of their 2019 album Father of the Bride. Pardon the pun, but it is a great track to roll into the weekend with.

Vampire Weekend, Bambina: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXaw5w2cuTA

Baroque pop indeed.